Visualizing the Universe: Everyday Optics

By: Jerry Flattum, Performer/Songwriter & Writer/Editor
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Lipstick Camera

An FBI surveillance agent plants a lipstick camera in an overhead ceiling light in the hotel room of a suspected terrorist.

Meanwhile, an airport security adviser doesn’t think traditional x-ray scanners are sufficient anymore, and decides to install a portable detection device that employs resonance-enhanced multiphoton ionization (REMPI) to ionize specific “target” molecules given off by explosives and drugs. The detection method uses a laser beam to ionize the vapor from the explosive.

Someone is always losing their glasses, and nothing could be worse than when a contact lens falls into a field of grass or mud puddle. In the movie Nerds, those who are stereotyped as nerds almost always wear glasses–oversized ones at that. And, they are usually scientists or into science, always peering through microscopes and telescopes.

The eyes get blurry when a dust particle invades them. We can’t see at night without night vision goggles. And nothing will make a person go blind quicker than staring at a computer screen all day.

A forest ranger scans miles of forest with binoculars, looking for the slightest hint of smoke. A 12-year girl doesn’t appreciate very much the boy sitting behind her in class, trying to look at her hair through a magnifying glass.

Tourists buy millions of instamatic cameras with one-hour photo services available on every corner. Why anyone needs their photos that fast can only be explained by the need for instant gratification. Journalists might need photos ASAP when covering a breaking news story. But journalists don’t use instamatics. With digital photography, photos are available instantly. However, it still takes time to print them so we’re back to the waiting game…unless the photos are uploaded to the Internet.

An amateur astronomer discovers another meteor, like so many amateurs have done before, and names it after his wife, Gertrude.

In many households, TVs are on 24 hours a day, whether someone is watching it or not. Some say TVs rot the brain. A large screen TV rests in the living room, with smaller ones positioned in the kitchen, all the bedrooms, the bathroom and in some cases, one in the garage. Now, TV junkies can watch favorite programs on their iPods or in their car.

During the Iraqi War, infrared photos of a variety of Iraqi targets (bunkers, buildings, training camps, etc.), are broadcast back to the States. TV viewers watch disinterestedly, when there’s nothing else on 200 other plus channels. The targets are destroyed by precision-guided bombs, with targets pin-pointed through the crosshairs of an aircraft high-tech laser targeting system. Next, U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf describes the purpose of the attack, followed by a quick blurb featuring a U.S. Marine sitting on top of tank, wishing he could be home.

From there, Hollywood picks up on the news story and a new movie is released. The techno-thriller, i, Fighter Jet (Jamie Foxx), is a story seemingly ripped right from the headlines. In the story, an elite trio of U.S. Navy pilots are picked to fly highly classified stealth fighter jets, called Talons. A fourth, virtual wingman–an artificially intelligent based Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, or UCAV–is added to one of their flight missions. The pilots face being replaced and envision a new world where war is fought by androids. But then, ever since Star Wars, robot wars have become a staple of sci-fi movies.

Following the movie, a slew of high resolution video games hit the streets, featuring laser-shooting super jets fighting a host of enemies, from aliens to artificially intelligent super soldiers. Video games also rot the brain, so they say. But video game technology is largely responsible for the high end graphics cards now used in most computers.

Speaking of aliens, the Hubble Space Telescope is really a glorified instamatic camera…sort’a. It takes pictures of things we can’t see, like black holes. But one can’t help wonder how a telescope can see a black hole if it’s black. Science does have a sense of humor.

A major selling point of Smartphones and iPods is the ability to download/upload photos from the Internet and view them on the go. Portable media devices, ranging from laptops to Microsoft’s Media Center to the Iphone, can store 1000s of photos. The family photo album goes digital. Digital cameras eliminate the need for film and can plug directly into a computer via a USB port. Instagram.

A brutal beating during a riot is captured on a digital camcorder and uploaded to the Internet. Smaller digital cameras capture speeders and red light runners on unsuspecting street corners. A scientist explores nanotubes using a scanning tunneling microscope. Nanorobots are injected into the human blood stream and flash back photos of bad cancer cells on a monitor viewed by a doctor 100s of miles away. Well, not yet, anyway.

All of the above vignettes illustrate the wide range of areas and applications influenced by the science of optics.

From the study of electromagnetic radiation to distant galaxies, optics has given humans the ability to see far beyond normal vision. And, it can all be captured on film.  Film? What’s that? Digitally.

But it’s not just a lot of fun gadgets. Electron microscopes are the key to understanding disease. Surveillance cameras question the issue of privacy. Media–meaning movies, TV, print and the Internet–bombard us with a tremendous array of images that can deeply affect our daily lives. Understanding how light works gave us the lightbulb, perhaps the single most important device in the history of modernization. Some might argue the car or the telephone. But even cars and telephones are optically influenced, whether it’s headlights and glare-proof windows or sending millions of telephone messages across fiber optic cable.

Eyeglasses, contact lenses and laser surgery gave a whole new slant to the meaning of natural selection. Those who would’ve gone blind can now see far into the future.

But, seeing into the future takes more than glasses. It takes imagination. It takes vision of another kind. Then again, with telescopes mounted on space probes capturing images of what might be the big bang, who knows what this will tell us about the history of the universe…and its future. We may yet design artificial eyeballs. Someone just might figure out a way to project our dreams onto a screen.